How is it to facilitate a large-scale event?

Sep 2016
Project towers

TFL Magazine talked to Davide about his experience in large-scale events.

So, Davide, do you remember your first time?

It was in Barcelona in January 2003, “Sailing to the future”, one of the first large-scale events promoted by SALTO EuroMed. I was developing it together with other colleagues and I remember a lot of participant trainers running like crazy from one activity to another, enjoying being together, sharing and having a good time in a venue on the hills, with magic corners in the garden. It was a successful meeting. I recall also some night battles of trainers/participants in the corridors. Well, a bit of fun is also part of these kinds of events.

Large-scale events: what for?

I have to admit that at the beginning I was quite reluctant, having a sort of prejudice deep inside: with a lot of people and just a few days at my disposal I was thinking it was impossible to provide a meaningful learning experience and to produce a wide impact. The experiences I had later confirmed that I was wrong.

In general, practitioners participating are satisfied at the end of large-scale events, because they can meet colleagues and institutional stakeholders; on many occasions they are an opportunity for networking and growing new ideas for projects; sharing results developed during previous activities; sharing visions, getting inspired, learning new methods and developing competences; and living an experience in a special atmosphere. The big potential is that, when back home, they are ready and motivated to enrich their local and international work (and seed their networks) with new visions, tools, contacts and project ideas.

Of course it depends on the activity and on its purpose, there are many different types of large-scale events. Personally, I was lucky to be involved in the facilitation of events that, for example, aimed to start a wider cooperation between Programme and Meda organisations (Sailing to the future); to create for the first time a space of cooperation for organisations and trainers of Programme and neighbouring countries (in 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2011); Let´s… with our Neighbours); to promote EVS among Programme and Meda countries (in 2008, EVS Odyssey in EuroMed); to develop the quality and variety of tools for learning in the youth field, while contributing to the educational pathway and competences of participants (in 2012 and 2015 Tool Fair); to share, reflect and develop specific EuroMed tools and competences (in 2013 and 2014, EuroMed trainers Forum); to bring new learning tools and a new methodology to a Vietnamese public while presenting the outputs of a capacity building project (in 2016, Social Inclusion Out of the Box).

What dimensions are involved and what are the key elements for the facilitation of such events?

What I started to appreciate more and more from these types of happenings are the multiple layers that it is possible to reach during their preparation and development: from my experience I can say that there is training, there is facilitation and there is facilitation of large-scale events. Many of the tools we use in are usual activities are simply not adaptable when you have more than 50 participants. It is like a big ‘educational party’ where it is essential to create the right (and possibly magical) atmosphere for sharing and learning: traces of training elements are present, some theatre is appreciated, facilitation is the ‘oil’ of the machine, collective creativity and critical thinking make the difference, celebration with fireworks is the expectation. Empowerment of the facilitation team and ownership of the place by participants seem to me the pillars for the success of the event. Extra competences needed are diplomacy and intercultural attention to the different groups you are facilitating: participants coming from different continents, but also facilitation team, experts and institutional stakeholders - some of them more informal but some others very formal. I personally appreciated very much the freedom I always had in setting things up. And, of course, it’s important to put a lot of organizational wisdom in it, but also to leave room for things to happen by improvisation. To sum these thoughts up better: it’s the perfect space for creating a kind of organized chaos!

Some personal insights?

I can mention four main things: the ‘salad dressing recipe’, the survival kit for a facilitator, the benefit for yourself and… a short motivational story.

The contents of the event normally result from the mix of ideas of the team, which is a bunch of people with their own passions. What for me is important is to ‘dress’ all these ideas in order to provide a coherent and multi-flavoured menu, so that the activities can match the tastes of different kinds of practitioner: the newcomer, the enthusiastic, the expert, the sceptical…

The challenges are multiple and a survival kit for a large-scale events facilitator is needed (or at least it works for me :)) be yourself, be creatively adaptable, trust and balance the team resources (no control freak is allowed!), put effort into the communication with everyone, be patient and use your organisational vision (with people, process and product in mind). Benefit for myself? Also thanks to the engagement in such events, I’m now happily walking on the path to Zen, swimming in an ocean of learning, having a lot of professional and personal sharing with fantastic team members and practitioners, to whom I owe a lot.

This little story gives me a lot of motivation. This year I had the chance to facilitate - together with the international project team - a big event in Hanoi with 130 Vietnamese youth workers/volunteers coming from different provinces of the country. For most of them it was the first time to take part in an activity with a wide range of non-formal learning activities. The whole facilitating team (including Vietnamese organisers) was a bit nervous, not knowing what were the expectations of the participants, what was their reaction going to be?… and it was simply fantastic! It has been one of the most exciting experiences I ever had and we ended up with some Vietnamese participants coming to us and saying that it was one of the best days of their life!

A final thought?

This experience reminds me of the words of Pino Cacucci, an Italian writer who said: "Roots are important in the life of humans, but we have legs, not roots, and legs are made to go elsewhere". What I have learnt facilitating different types of large-scale events is that in some cases it’s important – without forgetting the roots (in my case, local and international youth work) - to walk together with a critical mass of other people from different corners of the world eager to make a change, to create waves of impact.

Grazie mille!

Image Credits: 
Davide Tonon and friends

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